The Panthers' struggles throwing the ball (they are 28th in the NFL in passing yards), stopping the run (26th) and committing turnovers (the NFL's worst) this season have been well-documented. Those deficiencies have been big factors in Carolina's descent from division winner last season to 4-7 team this year.
But another trend startled me: The Panthers are the NFL's worst in both kickoff and punt return average yards allowed. Carolina has permitted opposing kick returners to gain 12.8 yards per punt return and 29.6 yards per kickoff return. Only three NFL teams, meanwhile, get fewer yards per kickoff return than the Panthers' 20.2 yards.
A closer look at the numbers reveals that the Panthers coverage and return units are not quite as bad as the aforementioned figures would indicate. But they have certainly harmed a team that has little margin for error on special teams because of its pedestrian offense (20th in the NFL):
Let's start with covering punt returns. Carolina has allowed opponents to return 25 punts for 320 yards and a touchdown. That 12.8 average exceeds the 11.5 yards per return allowed by the Packers, the 2nd-worst figure in the NFL. Only five teams have allowed more than 320 yards.
Better indicators of how effective punt coverage units are, however, are average net yards per punt and the number of punts downed inside the 20. Carolina flops in these categories, too. Carolina averages 37.2 net yards per punt, tied for 5th-worst in the NFL with the Falcons. (The Packers have the worst average, 34.2). Carolina has downed only 16 punts inside the 20, tied for 22nd in the NFL.
The Panthers are just as ineffective covering kickoffs. Carolina has allowed opponents to return 28 kickoffs for 829 yards and a touchdown. That 29.6 average exceeds the 26.5 yards per return allowed by the Steelers, the 2nd-worst figure in the league. Fortunately for the Panthers, they have blasted 18 of 46 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. That 40 percent touchback rate is second in the NFL, trailing only Atlanta's 41.5 percent rate on 53 kickoffs.
How bad has Carolina's kickoff coverage unit been, then? Despite that No. 2 touchback rate, the Panthers allow opponents to start drives following kickoffs at their 27. Twenty-two teams reward their defense with a longer field to defend on average.
Carolina has stopped opposing kickoff returners inside the 20 just 4 times. Only the Rams and Eagles have recorded as few stops inside the 20. (To be fair, the 28 returns Carolina has covered is tied with Cleveland for second-fewest in the NFL. The Rams have covered 31 kickoffs and the Eagles 57).
The Panthers kickoff return unit has not compensated for that poor coverage. Carolina has returned 36 kickoffs for 726 yards. That 20.2 average is 29th in the NFL, but better than the Raiders' NFL-worst 18.2 mark. The Panthers kickoff return unit has not been explosive either. Carolina has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown and its long return of 55 yards ranks 23rd in the NFL. The Panthers have just 18 returns of 20-plus yards, 30th in the NFL. (Albeit Carolina is only 25th in total returns).
Want to end this column with some positive news? Sure. The Panthers punt return unit has been good. Carolina averages 9.9 yards per return, tied for 8th in the NFL. The Panthers have three returns of at least 20 yards (8th in the league) and their long return of 37 yards is 12th in the NFL.